May 08, 2015

A teacher appreciation — 25 years later

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications

Tom Della SalaNineteen years after he stopped teaching, and nine years after he left the field of education, Schenectady's Tom Della Sala found a profound post of gratitude on his Facebook page, written by a student who had graduated in 1990. The former student, who was finishing up a career in the Army, told his onetime teacher how he carried warmth, music and poetry from his English class within him as he fought in the hot sands of Iraq in combat, and in the long days of wartime military intelligence analysis afterward.

Since the post went up on Della Sala's page last week, he said 270 people have "liked" it and another 90 people – many of them former students – have added their own comments of praise.

"It's been overwhelming and fulfilling. An incredible litany of other students have been chiming in, which has made my whole career feel worthwhile," said Della Sala, a former president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers. The timing for his recognition is as perfect as a dogwood blossom in May — it is Teacher Appreciation Week.

"The interaction between students and teacher can't be measured in a standardized test," he added.

Former student Don Dahlia wrote the following:

"Mr. Della Sala, I just wanted to say thank you. Twenty-odd years later, as I am about to retire from the Army, you need to know the impact that you had on my life. You need to know that I can't listen to Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel, without thinking of you. You need to know your classes in analyzing poetry allowed me to think critically throughout all of my years in military intelligence analysis. You need to know that, in my darkest hours in combat as I was involved in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that your class, smile, and laughter is what helped me get through. You had such an incredible impact on my life when I took your English class that I have carried that with me throughout my entire life. I have only hoped I could have that impact on the hundreds of soldiers that I have led in my career that you had on my life as a teenager. Thank you, Mr. Tom Della Sala, thank you for teaching more than just English. Thank you for being a phenomenal human being who helped shape my life, think critically, be prudent, and find beauty and poetry in everyday life. All of your students were truly blessed to have you as a teacher. I hope you are well, Mr. Della Sala, and I want you to know that part of who I am today is because of you."

Della Sala taught English in grades 9-12 and then became the K-12 coordinator of ELA in the Schenectady City School District. He retired in 2006.

"I always loved reading and writing, and wanted to teach great books to others. I loved making students aware of great writing and I took pride in teaching them how to create organized and persuasive essays," he said.

His teaching has had much impact. In 2002, the New York State English Council named him a "Teacher of Excellence." He worked actively with colleagues while serving as president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers from 1985-1993.

Della Sala's father-in-law, Kenneth Johnson, was an SFT leader during that union's 14-day strike in 1975 and was one of the "Schenectady 12" who served time in jail for their union activities. Johnson died in February.

Who are his favorite authors? There are many, he said, "but Kurt Vonnegut and John Steinbeck would be high on that list."

Interestingly, Vonnegut was a former resident of Schenectady.

Della Sala himself won several awards in NYSUT's annual journalism contest for columns he wrote in the local union's newsletter.

Once named Teacher of the Year by students in Schenectady, he used music to bring them to deeper learning. The vinyl was not the final.

"I'd start with an artist they all knew — The Beatles, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon – and we'd investigate meaning, structure, rhythm, thyme, etc. to get started. Then the door was open to all poets of all eras."

How does that translate to analyzing military intelligence?

"Well, analysis of writing requires critical reading and critical thinking," Della Sala said. "One has to ask specific questions: ‘Is the title significant? Why that word? Does the rhyme scheme make a difference? How does the chorus/refrain factor in?' All of these questions lead to others, and critical thinking grows from these questions. Answers layer upon each other, and the reader starts to think like the poet did."

Della Sala said poetry can be seen in activity or oratory, for example, and he called to mind the poet John Keats' line from Ode to a Grecian Urn: "Beauty is truth, and truth beauty."

Today, Della Sala spends a lot of his time in retirement reading and following politics. He spent a term on the Schenectady City Council. He loves theater, and continues to serve his community as president of the board of directors for the Schenectady Light Opera Company.